Awadagin Pratt

Awadagin Pratt: On Making a Record and Adding to the Repertoire

It’s been a year since we at 21CM announced that publisher Mark Rabideau was making a record with acclaimed pianist Awadagin Pratt – and that we wanted you to come along for the ride. Our goal is to not just to share a work of art with you, but also the wisdom acquired while creating it. Since then, we’ve learned how to build an effective budget for a recording project and how to navigate musicians’ contracts. In the meantime, the artistic scope of the album has taken shape. 

Inspired by “Burnt Norton” from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” this album will feature the work of seven composers writing for Awadagin Pratt on the piano, the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and a string orchestra. The release is still a long way off, but Rabideau and Pratt already have much to reflect upon in terms of artistic inspiration, the desire to cultivate a diverse roster of composers and why it’s important for performers to add to the body of works written for their instrument. 

During a recent visit to DePauw, Awadagin Pratt discussed the progress of the album with Mark Rabideau, and how the text of “Burnt Norton” has focused their creative energies. 


Mark Rabideau: How do these lines [in “Burnt Norton”] launch a project of this magnitude? 

Awadagin Pratt: These lines have meant a lot to me over the years. They’re a great expression of a particular quality of life, really. [It’s an] aspirational quality of life. There’s something about the juxtaposition of life and the stillness of life. The nature of the writing is very musical. It just struck me, there are so many possible interpretations of this idea, and it might be a great unifying energy for the album. 

MR: It’s truly beautiful poetry. I think you’ve attracted an eclectic group of composers to interpret this on their own. There are seven works in total, written for solo piano, string orchestra, and early on, we decided that Roomful of Teeth would be the perfect artistic partners to render the textual components of this. Who are the composers that have embraced the project? And why each of these individuals? How do you imagine them taking up this concept from Eliot?

AP: I have no imagination about what the nature of the works will be from each composer, and in what manner they would interpret these words. There are several pieces just being written for piano and string orchestra, so the manifestation of these words will be in the feeling and the spirit [of the music]. Writing for all three components – me [piano], Roomful [of Teeth] and string orchestra – will be Judd Greenstein, Jonathan Bailey Holland and Paola Prestini. Then, Alvin Singleton is writing for piano and string orchestra, as are Jessie Montgomery –

MR: – and interestingly, Tyshawn Sorey. He said, ‘I really want to write for piano and Roomful.’ He’s going to take it up in that context.

AP: Absolutely. … And then Peteris Vasks is transcribing a piece [for solo piano] that he wrote for violin and cello.

MR: Each of these composers will bring a very different voice.

AP: I thought it was very important that we have a diverse group of composers. I really wanted to have the African-American voice represented. I think in the canon, a lot of the African-American thought and philosophy and the interest in it is centered on … the African-American point of view. Or from the African-American experience, or the Latino experience. Their contributions are a little bit marginalized to their own experiences, and what the public [or] presenting organizations want to have written and represented. I think it’s important, whether it’s in philosophy or any artistic endeavor, that there can be commentary on things that are firmly in the canon. That African-American people and underrepresented people have the authority to comment on things that are not solely particular to their experience. 

MR: I often describe you as my most successful 19th century musician friend.

AP: [Laughter.] Fair! I’ve been called worse things.

MR: When you enjoy a successful career like your own, there’s no reason to do anything differently. You’re recording, you’re very busy performing, you teach full-time. There’s no need to take on [a project like this] that is so radically different. What makes you do that? 

AP: That’s an interesting question. I have maintained, in my life as a 19th century musician, that those works [of the 19th century] are relevant and important. But … there’s a lot of important, interesting thinking going on and I didn’t want to exclude myself from that. I say I’m a recreative artist. As pianists, performers, we create something in the moment. Each [piece] is created singularly, but it’s a recreation. There’s no creativity from the inception of the idea. Those are different energies.

I think that it’s important in a lot of performers’ legacies [to consider] how many pieces they’ve added to the repertoire. Ursula Oppens, Mstislav Rostropovich [are] people that added works to the repertoire. And the performers inspired other composers. I think that’s a wonderful thing to be engaged with. 

MR: Thanks for spending some time in the 21CM studios. It’s fun to be on this ride with you.

AP: Thank you very much.

These interview highlights have been edited for clarity and length.


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